On Monday morning Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager Claude Loiselle joined Greg Brady and Andrew Walker on The Fan 590 to discuss the Peter Holland acquisition. During that interview the conversation shifted to 19 year old rookie defenseman Morgan Rielly who has been a healthy scratch for three of the Leafs’ last five games.
We’ve got so much depth on defense which is such an oddity for an NHL season. There are so many defenseman out there we have John-Michael Liles with the [Toronto] Marlies, T.J Brennan with the Marlies and a whole host of other players that are down there. Morgan Rielly’s 19 year old and in my view it’s not the worst thing in the world. You know people say he has to play he has to play. Yeah he does. Um, you know when I was in Tampa we had Steven Stamkos and he sat some games and played some games and sat some games. It’s important to practice and be around NHL players from his point of view. Of course you never want a player to sit out for a two or three week period and not play. He’s got to get into the lineup eventually. But you know the way the injury bug is hitting everybody Morgan’s going to get his chance.
The Leafs blueline has visibly struggled this season and it appears as if Loiselle is confusing quantity for quality when it comes to depth. I was a little surprised by what he had to say about the Leafs defense being so deep considering they have been very poor so far this season. However, unlike their awful centre ice situation, the Leafs definitely do have a multitude of capable defenseman in their organization, so Loiselle is not totally wrong in that sense. I just think it could have been said in a different way. I wouldn’t be singing from the rooftops about the defense situation with the way they have played the opening 20 games of 2013-14.
If the Leafs have so much depth on defense though why the need to burn a year of Rielly’s entry level deal? That question becomes even more confusing when you figure the coaching staff feels he cannot play over Mark Fraser. Is a 19 year old Rielly that much better than a Brennan (who has 19 points in 15 games in the AHL this season) or Liles (who is a big part of the cap whether he’s playing or not)? Eventually Rielly will be much better than those two players (he is already better than Fraser), but not right now.
Also, why is Fraser playing over Rielly? It really makes no sense at all. Fraser was a nice story last season, but he is a 6th or 7th defenseman at best for the Leafs. He is not someone that is automatically handed a spot in the lineup upon returning from injury. The injury that Fraser suffered also forced him to wear a brace for the remainder of this season which has hampered his mobility (exacerbating a pre-existing weakness). Take a look at Marcus Foligno (yes, Marcus Foligno not Sidney Crosby) blow by Fraser to score the winning goal Friday night against Buffalo:
Fraser began that clip ahead of Foligno but was unable to keep up and saw the Sabres checking forward completely outrace him to create an odd-man rush. On a side note, you have to love Greg Millen misidentifying Fraser and blaming Dion Phaneuf instead. At no point did Millen correct that mistake. While there are many that may gloss over that error there are also just as many people who swallow what Millen says as gospel and blame the Leafs Captain for that goal.
If Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle doesn’t feel like Rielly can supplant Fraser from the lineup than there is absolutely no reason he should have been kept beyond the nine game mark to open the season. As Loiselle mentioned, the Leafs have plenty of bodies that could have filled that void in the interim. That concept becomes even more apparent when you notice that Rielly has averaged 17:03 a game (6th defenseman minutes). Loiselle and the Leafs boast about depth but don’t feel that those pieces could be their 6th defenseman in case of an injury? The evidence seems to contradict Loiselle’s claims.
Finally, I’m confused by Loiselle’s comment about Stamkos. Stamkos was a healthy scratch only three times in his rookie season (Rielly has already sat 5 of the Leafs’ opening 20 games). Loiselle’s “he sat some, played some and sat some” comment is something he may want to go back to and look at again. In reality, the situations are completely different. The Leafs are a cap team with aspirations (misguided or not) of not only making the playoffs, but winning some rounds. The Lightning in Stamkos’ rookie season were in full rebuild and their goal was to develop their players. Was Loiselle really saying that the Leafs are keeping Rielly around so he can practice with NHL players? Really? Practice?